What the Presence of a Cell Phone Does to Relationships — Even if It’s Turned Off

We do it every day: Sit down with a colleague or friend and put our phones right there on the table. But apparently, the very presence of a cell phone — it doesn’t matter if it is off or not being used — can impact the quality of conversation and how we feel about our relationships.

Two researchers, Andrew Przybylski and Netta Weinstein, from the University of Essex in the UK, set up a study in which pairs of strangers talked to each other about an interesting event that happened over the past month. Half of the pairs sat with a cell phone nearby and visible. The other half sat near a notebook. After the discussions, the pairs were asked about the quality of their conversation and what they thought of the other person. The people who sat near the phones were more negative and more likely to say they didn’t connect with their partners or experience any closeness.

The researchers then followed up with a second experiment to determine if what was talked about would have an effect. This time, each pair of strangers was assigned a casual topic (their thoughts and feelings about plastic trees) or a meaningful topic (the most important events of the past year) to discuss — again, either with a cell phone or a notebook nearby. After their 10-minute discussion, the strangers answered questions about relationship quality, their feelings of trust and the empathy they had felt from their discussion partners. (1)

What did they discover? Well, it wasn’t good news. If the casual topic was discussed, the nearby cell phone had no effect on relationship quality, trust or empathy. But when the conversation topic was meaningful, pairs reported feeling less trust and said they thought their partners showed less empathy. They rated relationship quality low. How can a cell phone have this effect? Does its simple presence subtly tap into some kind of primal distraction mechanism? I don’t know, but it’s clear there’s something wrong.

These findings frightened and distressed me because I really hate the idea that a cell phone is doing all this, and worse, that I’m complicit in this distraction. I love my cell phone, but I love my friends and family and colleagues even more. I don’t want the quality of my communication and relationships to be dictated by an object. It feels like mind control. If people can become cell phone–free zones, I am all for it.


1)    Helen Lee Lin, “How Your Cell Phone Hurts Your Relationships” Scientific American http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/how-your-cell-phone-hurts-your-relationships/ (September 4, 2012)


Andrew K. Przybylski and Netta Weinstein, “Can you connect with me now? How the presence of mobile communication technology influences face-to-face conversation quality”